Mārcis Auziņš’ inner conviction — you can become best in what you do only by doing the heavy lifting
Being a solo musician means hard work and not smoking weed and philosophizing about Coltrane’s phrazing
I’ve wanted to catch Mārcis Auziņš for a chat about music and life for a while now, because he’s one of those people who’s always doing something, he constantly grows as an artist, always comes up with new ways to entertain the listener, in good sense of the word. He’s also very motivating as a colleague — hardworking and put together, productive, with very beautiful results of his hard work. Although it all is very fine and admirable, it usually means he’s very hard to catch, but at some point I finally managed to do it at a workshop session where I worked and he performed together with his «Acoustic Guitar Trio». We’ve managed to talk about a lot of different things and it was hard to stop, I think we’d be talking for many hours if he didn’t need to go on stage. So, here’s a talk about music, jazz, pop, solo musicianship and other adventures and creative projects.
How’s it going?
Everything is absolutely fantastic! I’m at a point in my life when I can finally breathe freely. If you want to skip the pleasantries and move on to what I’m currently doing, here’s what — I just did my third solo tour and have only one concert left, I have a feeling of a job well done and that everything is as it should be.
Satisfied with yourself, eh?
Are you happy with where you are now?
I think so, yes.
Do you think you’ve achieved your goal?
This will never happen. There are always moments… It’s like you’re doing something and suddenly there are 10 more things you absolutely have to do. The deeper into the woods, the more trees. I will never think that my goal is achieved.
What are your main projects now?
Listen, I’ll tell you this. My working profile has drastically changed in the last 4 years. I did a lot of playing as a part of a band, comping if you must. Starting with the Latvian Radio big band, then I had my own jazz trio, played with other guys, also with pop music artists. Now I’m at the age where I have to think about other things apart from arts, like how to earn a living and so on. The things I do now can be divided into two categories: one is the solo guitar and everything connected to it — two albums, 3 tours, it’s one big category, which doesn’t mean that… each musician knows that when you take on the job of a solo artist, when you’re all alone on the stage, it’s not an easy task to accomplish and it doesn’t mean that you just take your guitar, go on stage and play your heart out. This thing requires hard everyday work, because the genre itself is very complicated. You need to first decide what it is exactly that you’re going to play, then how you will develop it and then how to keep it all in your fingers. And that, if we go deeper into the specifics of guitarism, the technique that I use now is something completely different from what I’m used to, half of my life I studied jazz guitar, now I had to learn to play the guitar anew, all these styles and intricacies. It’s like learning to walk all over again.
Another big part of what I do is bandleading — it means that there are various producers in Latvia that produce events like «Cabaret», it’s a big show, and like anniversary concerts of some composers. So these producers call me and say — there’s this thing and I have to then listen to the music, decide on the line up, whether it needs strings or horns and all, then I need to write arrangements and prepare the scores for every musician. And again, it’s not an abstract task, it is a certain job that requires a lot of attention to detail. The projects can be different, but each takes two or three months to finish.
Of course I don’t ignore other gigs, I play with other musicians from time to time, like with Dons, Aija Vītoliņa, the «Acoustic Guitar Trio», Raimonds Macats and Latvian Symphony Orchestra’s first violin Raimonds Ozols, different but very interesting instrumental music projects. But yes, that’s what I do in life now.
How did you decide to take this step and start performing solo? As you said, you are a jazz guitarist according to your education.
My first solo pieces were recorded a very long time ago, although I don’t really publish them. I did study jazz guitar in RDKS first, then in JVLMA. You know yourself that music is a very wide field, but I was always interested in guitar music performed solo because it’s the greatest challenge there could ever be, to discover the instrument anew and continue discovering it, the process has no end really. And how I came up with the idea of starting a solo career… I can say for sure that it was a logical choice. I never thought I’d be able to perform alone, solo, but I was sitting at home and writing those arrangements until at one point…
Raimonds Pauls gave me a guitar a long time ago, as a gift. He had an anniversary and I took one of his tunes and arranged it in fingerstyle and then one producer asked me why I don’t have a solo album, so I started working on that. I recorded the album in a very short amount of time, it happened at the same time when I quit Latvian Radio big band, I had a lot of free time and it took me only three months to finish this work. Then I played some solo concerts and in time it became so exciting to me that now it takes up to 70% of my time.
I didn’t really plan to tour a lot with my solo program, I can’t say that I felt very comfortable on stage alone, it is such a different experience where you not only have to play yourself, but also talk to the listeners, and it’s a huge responsibility and no other musicians to support you or to hide behind and you have to work with the skill you have and that’s all. I remember my first concert clearly, as if it was yesterday, and the feeling is just… Do I really have to go on stage now? Alone? And that wasn’t a concert with only 20 or 30 people in attendance, somehow the people were so interested that I had to conquer the 200-300 person audience right from the start. It’s quite a lot for an instrumental concert of this kind, considering we’re in Latvia, right? And then you go on the stage during your first concert, you see 400 people and you have to play, that’s it. I can’t say it’s an easy road to take, and that understanding comes only when you’ve already begun doing it, not before. But as much as I give away, I receive back the same and more and I like the challenge.
Have you thought of a new challenge already? What’ll it be?
One small challenge is to collaborate with Latvian Radio big band after all these years. They have invited me as a soloist. In this concert we’ll play some compositions that we’ve already played while I was still a part of the band, something from Pat Metheny, whom I love with all my heart, something I wrote during my JVLMA times. As I already said, I now do completely different things, so I will have to renew my memory concerning some specific things, and have to be in top shape!
A big challenge… A third album is definitely one. I’m going to release the album soon, in the near future. I’m planning to use a baritone guitar there, which I recently bought. I started using it from time to time in my concerts, but not so much. It’s a very interesting instrument with a specific sound and endless potential, I feel like I can compose a lot for that. And I want this album to be like a flow of consciousness, just to start playing and see how it goes. The previous albums were all very thought through, heavily arranged, I want this one to be different.
What is the first memory you have of you and a guitar?
I started playing the guitar pretty late in life. I studied piano in the music school and in truth only while in Madona I took the guitar in my hands and that’s the first memory that comes to mind. I didn’t really plan on doing anything with it, I just took my father’s guitar which usually rested somewhere on top of the closet, and tried strumming something. A turning point form me was when I was wondering around the «Guitarist Session» («Ģitāristu Sesija»), and I wasn’t a guitarist, it’s just when you live in a small town there’s not a lot of things to do in your free time, so I had the feeling that there’s something to do and I met a man, it was Tālis Gžibovskis. I looked at him — the guy looked very important, like a boss, we started talking and he told me about the school he was the head of at the time and I decided I needed it, this is it, I’m going to Riga, adios! I wasn’t accepted on my first try, because my skills on the guitar weren’t good enough, but a year later I got in.
So Tālis is to blame for your love of jazz music?
100th high school wasn’t really jazz oriented, they had a rock music department but with jazz music elements — some theory, but not a lot. Jazz began when I enrolled into RDKS.
But you’ve already graduated from high school, why’d you go and do it again?
Because there weren’t other options available and I wanted to study guitar. My now colleague Aivars Hermanis established a music management department in Riga Dome Choir School (RDKS) and it was, in fact, really interesting. Then they established the jazz department there and all of the people who did some music at the time went there, because it was something new. So I graduated from RDKS twice, spent four years there in total.
And why jazz? Because we had the band at the time with Māris Jēkabsons, Kārlis Vanags, Kaspars Kurdeko, Raivis, who later went to Copenhagen, «The Spirit Shadows» with Ieva Kerēvica and Aija Vītoliņa on vocals, we played fusion and then we went to «Liepājas Dzintaru» competition (Liepāja Amber), took the first prize and we thought we were amazing but also that we did need to learn more and RDKS was an only option. And at the same time being interested in jazz was a trend, nobody knew what it really was, so it sucked us all in.
And if we’re being really honest, I can’t say that I learned all that I could at the time, I was in that age when you’re more interested in girls… But that’s also why as soon as the jazz department in JVLMA was established I went and enrolled, because the teachers were the same as in RDKS — Andrejs Jevsjukovs and Madars Kalniņš, who could give me so much more. I was pretty grown up when I enrolled, 29 years old already, so I was a different person and was ready to work hard. I think that on my second try I learned way more than on my first.
Is there one special concert that left the strongest impression? From the «before the solo guitar» era?
I’d probably better divide the concerts into different styles to answer that, because I’ve played many different concerts, not just jazz. The thing I remember clearest isn’t connected to jazz at all, apart from all the jazz musicians being with me. It was when I was about 25 years old, I met Raimonds Macats, who’s still a good friend of mine and I started playing with Laima Vaikule. Imagine a 25 year old boy now being in a train on his way through Ukraine… I got a call from Vaikule’s management, they invited me to join the band. They’ve sent me the recordings which I transcribed for a month, because there were no scores. And when I came to the rehearsal, it turned out that half of the tunes weren’t even relevant, but it was smoothed out with the feeling that me, a young and upcoming musician is going on a tour with a star, big concert halls and all…
Later on with pop music, a lot of exciting big concerts with Dons, in the «Arena Riga», then the acoustic tour… A lot of those precious moments. And also my time with the Radio band… I can’t mention only one, because there were too many great experiences with a lot of awesome musicians, you know? And with Vaikule we played because a lot of Russian musicians couldn’t get a visa to different countries so they invited musicians from the Baltic states. There were Gints Pabērzs, Raimonds Macats, Villu Veski from Estonia, Tanel Ruben, all amazing musicians. And the head of the Lithuanian Academy of Music and jazz historian, so there we were on a train, they told me different jazz tales over a glass of vodka, and I just listened without understanding a single thing. What was amazing was that through all that pop music I got to find out about a lot of amazing recordings, I found out about jazz and met all the best musicians through the wrong music.
How many guitars do you have?
How do you choose your instruments?
Before the choice of an instrument was somewhat impulsive, I thought — this one might sound great, I should buy it! Now I try buying only what I consider necessary and I research the possibilities and all the qualities of the instrument I intend to buy, evaluate the things I could do with it. I have two instruments that I have bought after I started my solo career. I sold some as well. But I don’t sell instruments just like that and I still have a couple jazz guitars at home, if someone wants to borrow — no problem.
Do you have a favorite guitar?
I try distancing emotions from the instruments but there’s one which maybe isn’t the favorite, but it is the one I’m not selling or exchanging — the one Raimonds Pauls gifted me with. It was a present and I still play it.
Do you teach?
No. Me and Kaspars Zemītis once a year go to Kandava to a camp, where I dedicate a week of my life to teaching, there are young kids already acquainted with music. But in my everyday life… Although I did have a situation once… There was a guy who wrote to me for a year, then his mother, then his father… But you know what? I spend so much time practicing myself that I don’t have any time left for teaching. Maybe it’s the age thing and someday the urge to teach will wake up in me. I’m not saying that I don’t like it, I just don’t have it in me right now.
Tell me about your everyday life? What does your ordinary day look like?
If there’s a tour approaching, then every day for a month I play for some 3 hours in the morning, then I write some scores or if not, I go to the gym or read a book or repeat some old tunes. Then in the evening I play 3 more hours. And even if I don’t need to prepare new music, I still play. I think, and that’s my inner conviction, that the only way you can be better is through regular hard work. Maybe it’s different for someone else, but it is so for me. I remember how uncomfortable I felt in my first 2 years in the academy of music, when I couldn’t dedicate all my time to playing. I thought — what’s the point in studying when you can’t dedicate all your time to your instrument? Because after you graduate that’s what you’ll be doing, but for real. But well, that’s my everyday life. I don’t have a lot of rehearsals, because I’m playing solo a lot, but when I’m a bandleader, then I decide how many rehearsals are necessary and then I rehears. And then there’s the time you have to dedicate to management.
Mostly I do all the social media myself, and there’s a lot of things to think about — photoshoots, advertising, PR and stuff. You know that «Tiny Desk» project? Well, at some point I decided to suggest something similar to Delfi.lv, like a mini concert at a certain time, only online.
And I had a very interesting proposal just now — «Airbaltic» called me and wanted me to compose some music to be played during take off and landing. That was a very interesting project and I was honored — a national aviation service and they wanted something Latvian and on the guitar. I can’t say that it turned out very Latvian in style, but I wrote the music and they accepted it. It is a huge and a very interesting job, because while writing you have to consider all the sounds an airplane makes, air conditioning, engines and all. And before me the music was written by Raimonds Tiguls, who is a very respected composer, so it was a challenge to me.
What do you think about using sheet music on stage?
That’s a question that can’t be answered definitively. A very wide topic. If you’re in a band that plays together for 10 years and you know the program by heart, all is fine. But let’s be real, living here, in Latvia, being a musician here means, as Americans say «You must wear different hats», you have to do a lot of things — you have to be able to sight read, to improvise… Imagine yourself in a big band, you have to play a concert and you have only two weeks to rehearse the tunes, you’ll never be able to play it all by heart. So sometimes it’s simply impossible. But there are things you have to remember, like jazz standards, at least some of them. Although I’ve seen once a band playing the music from the «sheets» in «Smalls» club in New York, also the program that they’ve been playing for 10 years already, and no one said anything about it. But if the band you play in plays the same stuff for 10 years and that’s the only band you play in, then the answer is obvious. It depends on the situation.
Do you play your solo concerts by heart?
Of course. I’ve spent so much time preparing the program, that the only thing I have on the stage is a set list, and even then… Sometimes I like changing the order of the tunes, and there’s definitely no scores on the stage. If I play in the «Cabaret» show, and there are a lot of different musicians on stage, a DJ, dancers with choreography… I can’t learn the program by heart in two month time, everyone follows the scores. And here’s the thing — I’ve heard from different producers that they want the musicians to play by heart because they’ve seen on the TV how some foreign musicians played without the scores, but let’s be real, Latvian market isn’t so big that it would allow a musician to form a band and tour with this very same band for years playing all the same stuff. Here you play with different projects and that is the only way a musician can survive if he wants to do only music. Especially when you’re a man and you have to take care of a wife and kids. And I am at the age when I have to think of those things as well.
That is the important thing to understand that you can never separate the musician from reality, from what real life is like here, where we live. It’s not like you’ll be doing one specific thing for the rest of your life. Let’s say I’ve prepared one solo program, so I’ve played approximately 120 concerts here in Latvia in 3 years, now I need to change something, because people will stop buying the tickets to listen to something they’ve already heard. You can’t live from one program.
You’re not planning to go away, aren’t you?
No. I had those plans when a lot of my friends went abroad, including Kaspars Kurdeko. When I graduated from RDKS I saved up some money and thought I’d go away, but instead I went for 3 months, lived in some «Airbnb» apartment and took private lessons. And it was enough for me then. Am I thinking of going away now? Definitely not. I think Latvia has a lot of unexplored possibilities and the music we do and the music I do, it’s all in the infant stage yet. I have space to grow and I want to play here.
How do you think the listener reacts to solo playing?
I can’t complain. I play three-four solo concerts a month, people like it and attend my concerts. And I’m not doing it for free, of course, I perform in concert halls and do private events, I honestly can’t complain.
Another change of topic! Improvisation — is it necessary and if yes, then why?
In my opinion yes, it is necessary. I know a lot of classical musicians who don’t improvise, but in the sphere of music I play it’s important.
What do you do to train and expand your improvisation skills?
Now I work on totally different things, but when I was actively improvising and playing jazz, I did a lot of transcriptions, you can check them out on my web page, I’ve uploaded all the PDF files. At one point I decided I needed to sort through the things, converted everything to PDF’s and not everyone can use the transcriptions I made. There are some solos of Metheny, Coltrane. At one point in my life I was very involved in transcribing, it was my way of learning. For some people it’s different. Sure, nowadays there’s «iReal Pro» and that helps a lot, you can input whatever chord progression and train.
Did you ever experience lapses of memory during your concerts? Like you’ve suddenly forgotten your part and the head is completely empty?
Yes, it did happen a couple of times. I improvised, never stopped. The stress came, but you have to just embrace it. It’s a huge topic, actually. You can’t allow yourself to succumb to the anxiety, especially during solo concerts. If you’re a part of a band, then maybe no one will notice that you forgot something, but when you’re all alone, there’s no place for stress and worries. I’ve asked different specialists about how to overcome this stress, and spent a lot of my time studying this topic. There are different methods, meditation, breathing exercises. I did a lot of that some four years ago, I still do, but on a lower scale.
How can you describe the state of music in Latvia now?
That was the topic I discussed with my older colleagues recently, about instrumental music. No one could have imagined some 20 years ago a situation when an instrumentalist would go up on stage alone. It just wasn’t done. The system didn’t allow it, or maybe some other reasons, but now the things I do alone or as a part of a band, it all proves that instrumental music has developed into something people want to hear, they are ready. And it will continue growing, maybe it will take 10 or 20 years to teach the listener to like it, but if it will happen, the listener will be able to appreciate it. I think listeners in Latvia are amazing and they want high level music, interesting music, different projects and not only vocal, but also instrumental.
What would you recommend to young musicians?
I’ll tell you this. I am probably pretty lucky, you know how astrologists say, if a person is on the right path, does what the universe intended for him to do, then things will happen, but still you have to work hard. And it is so for me, I’m 36 and I still believe in that magic and the more I play, the more time I dedicate to that, the more life gives back. You just have to work, not smoking weed and philosophizing over Coltrane’s phrasing, you have to actually do the heavy lifting. It’s like the famous Latvian saying — it’s easier to talk about mountains than climbing them.